State v. Clausell

Decision Date30 August 1990
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent and Cross-Appellant, v. James D. CLAUSELL, Defendant-Appellant and Cross-Respondent.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Lowell Espey, Designated Counsel, James K. Smith, Jr., Deputy Public Defender, for defendant-appellant and cross-respondent (Wilfredo Caraballo, Public Defender of New Jersey, attorney; Lowell Espey and Christine M. Cook, Designated Counsel, of counsel; Lowell Espey, Christine M. Cook, and Susan T. Sinins, on the briefs).

James E. Jones, Jr., Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff-respondent and cross-appellant (Robert J. Del Tufo, Atty. Gen. of New Jersey, attorney).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


A jury convicted defendant, James Clausell, of capital murder, three counts of aggravated assault, possession of a firearm with the purpose to use it unlawfully against the person of another, and possession of a handgun without a permit. Defendant appealed to this Court as of right. R. 2:2-1(a)(3). The State concedes that the trial court failed to instruct the jury that defendant could be convicted of capital murder only if he knowingly or purposely caused the death of the victim, as opposed to knowingly or purposely causing serious bodily injury that resulted in death. Because there is a rational basis in the evidence for the jury to have found defendant intended to cause only serious bodily injury, his conviction for capital murder must be reversed. State v. Gerald, 113 N.J. 40, 549 A.2d 792 (1988). Errors in the jury instruction on aggravated assault require reversal of those convictions as well.


Shortly after midnight on August 12, 1984, Edward Atwood was shot and killed through the front door of his home in Willingboro, New Jersey. At approximately 10:45 on the evening of August 11, while Mr. Atwood was away, his wife and daughter, Tanya, responded to a knock at the front door. Two men whom Mrs. Atwood did not recognize were standing on the front step. Mrs. Atwood testified that one of the men stood directly in front of the door, while the other stood off to the side. The man in front of the door asked, "Ed?," and Mrs. Atwood stated that he was not home. The man to the side of the door responded, "I told you, man." Mrs. Atwood asked the man in the front of the doorway for his name, to which he replied, "Dwayne." The two men then departed.

Because the men were unfamiliar to her, Mrs. Atwood asked her son, Darrell, if he knew anyone named Dwayne. Darrell said that he did not. When Mrs. Atwood noticed the men walking past the house a few minutes later, she and her children watched them from a window on the second floor. None of the Atwoods could identify the two men.

Edward Atwood returned home with his grandparents, Hubert and Bessie Dixon, a little after midnight. While he and his wife were in the kitchen, Tanya came downstairs and, through the window in the front door, saw that the two men had returned. She informed her parents that the men were at the door. As Mr. Atwood approached the front door, one of the men knocked. Mrs. Atwood and Tanya followed Mr. Atwood to the foyer. Both grandparents were close by. Darrell sat at the top of the stairs.

The Atwood home had both a wood and glass interior door and an exterior screen door. When Mr. Atwood opened the interior door, Dwayne stood in front and, as before, the other man stood to one side. Through the screen door, Dwayne said, "Ed?" Mr. Atwood replied, "you got the wrong guy," and moved quickly to close the door. Darrell testified that as the door was closing, Dwayne moved out of the doorway. The second man stepped forward and, shooting through both doors, fired a shot at Mr. Atwood. As the victim fell, the other members of the family ducked. The unidentified man moved closer to the screen door, and aiming downward, again shot through both doors. Then he ran away. Within hours of the shooting, Mr. Atwood died from a single bullet wound to the left chest. The other bullet, which did not hit him, was later recovered.

The investigation of the Atwood shooting gained momentum early in September. On September 7, 1984, Mrs. Atwood saw a television broadcast of a police photograph of a man identified as Dwayne Wright. She immediately notified Burlington County investigators that she believed it was the same man who had been at her door the night of the shooting. On that same day, investigators, who had been questioning the victim's neighbors, were informed that Roland Bartlett, the owner of the house directly behind the Atwoods', would not speak to them. Around the same time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation notified the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office that an anonymous informant had identified Dwayne Wright, defendant, and a woman named Jennifer Schall as the perpetrators of the Atwood shooting.

Investigators questioned Paul Grant, a friend of Wright, on September 19, 1984, and he provided details of the shooting. Grant identified Wright and defendant as the two men at the Atwood house on August 11, and named Schall as the driver of the "getaway car." When the investigators interviewed Schall on September 24-25, she admitted that on the night of the shooting she had driven Wright and defendant to New Jersey from Philadelphia. She claimed, however, that she had not known that they intended to murder anyone.

Two days later investigators presented Mrs. Atwood with a photographic lineup that contained photographs of Wright, Grant, and defendant. She identified Wright, but not Grant or defendant, as one of the assailants. Viewing the same lineup, Tanya did not identify anyone. A search the next day of the Wright and Clausell residences yielded no evidence.

The Burlington County Grand Jury indicted Wright and defendant for capital murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) and -3a(2); murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3; conspiracy to commit murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2; five counts of fourth-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(4); unlawful possession of a weapon with purpose to use it unlawfully against another, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a; and unlawful possession of a handgun without a permit, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b. The two men were tried jointly.

The State sought to establish that defendant and Wright had been hired to kill Atwood by Roland Bartlett, the Atwoods' neighbor and the alleged leader of a Philadelphia drug-distribution ring known as the "Mini Mob." Bartlett had quarrelled with the victim over Bartlett's dog.

At trial, Grant stated that in late June 1984, he had been approached by Anthony Bartlett, Roland Bartlett's son, who asked him to murder "someone" for $5,000. Grant claimed that he refused. He also claimed that he had been with defendant and Wright on August 11, 1984, when defendant's beeper had signalled. According to Grant, members of the "Mini Mob" used the electronic-paging devices as a means of communication.

Grant stated that defendant had responded to the page from a pay phone. Defendant had placed a call and asked to speak to "D," allegedly one of Bartlett's ringleaders. After hanging up, defendant had told Wright, "[t]onight's the night. We need a ride tonight. We have to do it." According to Grant, Clausell and Wright had told him they would each collect $2,000 for the murder. Grant also claimed Wright had told defendant to "get the gun," and that defendant had responded by retrieving a .357 long-barrel Magnum from his house. At approximately 9:30 p.m., Grant saw defendant and Wright enter Schall's blue Camaro and drive away.

Schall, a cocaine dealer who was the girlfriend of defendant's brother, Johnny Clausell, testified under a grant of immunity. She stated that a couple of days before the shooting, in response to defendant's request, she agreed to take him to New Jersey. On August 11, 1984, Wright made a similar request, and she told him that she had already arranged to take defendant there. Before entering Schall's car, somewhat after 9:00 p.m., defendant placed "a ball of newspaper" in the trunk.

While driving, Schall asked the men about the purpose of the trip. Defendant told her that they needed to collect money owed them for drugs. When Schall asked what they would do if the man did not have the money, the men told her they would "smack him around a little bit or beat him up."

According to Schall, the group drove to New Jersey and parked the car down the street from the Atwood home. The men removed the ball of newspaper from the trunk and went to see if the man they wanted was home. Schall waited in the car, and a few minutes later the men returned. The newspaper was gone, and defendant was carrying an object wrapped in his sweatsuit jacket. The men told Schall that the man's wife had said that he was not home, but that they wanted to wait.

After approximately an hour, defendant saw car lights approaching. As instructed, Schall returned to the Atwoods' house. On turning to ask Wright if he was going to talk to the man, she saw that Wright had a gun. Defendant asked Wright for the gun, but Wright replied that it was his turn. The two men left the car with defendant carrying the gun, again wrapped in his jacket. Shortly thereafter, Schall heard two gunshots, and Wright and defendant ran back to the car. The three then returned to Philadelphia.

On the return trip, defendant and Wright discussed going to the Fleetwood Club, allegedly owned by Bartlett, to be paid. Schall dropped the two men at the club and went home.

On the morning after the shooting, Schall saw Wright and defendant on the street. Defendant told her they "did good" and had been paid. They then gave Schall some money for driving them to New Jersey.

Grant also saw Wright the day after the shooting. Wright told Grant that he "took care of business" and was going to be paid. Later, according to Grant, Wright showed him $1,200. Grant testified on direct examination that the phrase "took care of business" referred to a ...

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